No city in Britain compares with York. For sheer atmosphere - pomp and pageant, peace and prosperity - nowhere will you find its like. York slumbers benignly in its greenness and its greyness, in its narrow, cobbled streets, a world of tired crooked timbers and red brick regency elegance. Famed for its great minster, venerable churches and ancient walls, secluded yards and secretive snickelways, river boats and railways - the scent of chocolate hangs on the air and excites the senses like a half forgotten childhood tugging gently at the heartstrings of recollection. The place is all things to all men. But of all things, York is bound up inextricably with its past - here history is a half remembered dream. The alarums and excursions of kings and prelates, lancastrians and yorkists, roundhead and cavalier, even the measured tramp of far flung roman legions, seem but the doings of lifes young day, the headlines of yesterdays papers. The past is so close you can smell it - it engulfs and embraces like a heady, intoxicating perfume, a marching pageant of human history in both its greatness and its triviality......
In the run up to Christmastime this unique atmosphere takes on a life all of its own. The squirrels in the museum gardens scurry among the fallen leaves and take titbits from the tourists. Great flocks of starlings flutter up from the busy pavements at the west front of the great floodlit minster. The streets are thronged with shoppers, tourists and street entertainers. Dickensian shopfronts twinkle with shiny baubles, tinsel and christmas lights, while beyond the grey mantle of the city walls mist shrouds the bare trees by the river as dank winter dresses well in his warm grey overcoat.
But even in York, or perhaps especially in York - things are not always as they seem. Behind the venerable facade of history and romance lurks the thinking man's Blackpool. With plastic behind the timber and hype behind the heritage, York sells its past like a kiss-me-quick hat. And beyond that romantic world-within-the-walls is another, more down-to-earth town of red brick streets, and housing estates, cheap cafes and uncommercialised local pubs. A hinterland of factories, industrial estates, and railway sidings where tourists are seldom seen.
Jake Bellerby was a creature of this hidden town. The arty gift shops and heritage emporiums held no romance for him. Had the city walls been bulldozed to make way for for an Asda carpark, Jake would have done little more than shrug and plod upon his weary way. A thick set, rough featured and greying man in his late forties, Jake had been pushing his grubby street orderly's barrow around York's narrow cobbled streets for nearly twenty years, picking up the litter and detritus left by the unceasing throng of shoppers and visitors. His was a mind numbing daily round of overflowing litter bins, smashed lager bottles, half drunk coke cans, fish and chip papers and endless dog ends - an unceasing daily mess to be bagged up and dispatched off to the landfill. Like many of his kind, constant exposure to the sordid backside of the uncaring, dirty human race had turned Jake into a morose and somewhat cynical individual - a loner - at home in the rat runs of his native town, but evasive, antisocial and ill at ease in the company of that most detestable of species - the rest of the human race.Jake didn't like the public. He detested them for their arrogant and superior attitude to the grizzled man in the orange overalls pushing the barrow. Even the unemployed and down-at-heel seemed to look down their noses at Jake Bellerby, and he hated them for it.
On the rare days he was at home, Jake could be located in a council flat not far from the railway sidings on the northern edge of town. He lived alone and had never married, devoting much of his free time to sitting on York Station taking down the numbers of railway engines. Jakes idea of a holiday was a weekend in Crewe or Clapham Junction. As a child he had spotted trains and had never grown out of it.
December Monday. Outside it was dark and mizzly and Jake had slept in. The previous day, kitted out with notepad, scarf and overcoat he had spent most of the afternoon and evening sitting on the platform of Leeds Station and had only just managed to catch the last train home, arriving in York rather later than he had planned. Now he had slept in. The clock radio had come on at five am, but he had dozed off again. Bugger!
Jake dressed hurriedly, donned his grubby yellow jacket with reflective strips, latched the door and padded out into the dark, icy backyard. Chained to a clothes post near the wheelie bins was an old bike of that antique 'sit-up-and-beg' type so commonly seen on the streets around York - a black gloss-painted anachronism with a worn leather saddle, white mudguards and reflectors. Jake snapped the dynamo onto the wheel rim, opened the yard gate and pedalled off into the early morning darkness.
Within-the-wall the streets of York were deserted. At 6 am, in the darkness of a cold December morning, you dont see many people about. A hard frost glistened on the pavement, reflecting the street lights. The Christmas lights, set high above the narrow street had been turned off at eleven o' clock on the previous night. Jake growled as he pulled his brush from the barrow. Judging by the slivers of broken coloured glass all over the pavement, some of them must have been 'put out' a bit earlier, he thought.
At Bootham Bar 'Daz' Dunnett was mopping out the public lavatories. He sang out loudly as Jake passed....
"Cold as a frog in an ice bound pool, cold as the end of an eskimos'...."
Jake cut him off. "You got any spare bags pal?"
Daz scratched his tousled mop of white curly hair.
"Got a few - can't spare many though. Ruddy black bin liners! They ration them out as if they were gold plated!"
"Council cutbacks, innit!"
"I know. But at one time we used to draw these in wads of a hundred - and they were much better quality than these crappy things. They split open at the slightest thing."
"They're cutting back to save money. New cleansing contracts' up for grabs. If a private firm gets it we're all out of a job. We have to put in the cheapest tender, or go under."
Jake sighed. How things had changed since he'd first started with the council. In those days a corporation job was a 'job for life'. Nowadays there was half the manpower and half the resources to deal with twice the mess. And the ruddy public - all they could do was complain about the councils failure to clean up after them. Jakes eyes narrowed in disgust. He hated the ruddy lot of them. How he wished he could fly!
'Daz' Dunnett got into his van, wound down the window and passed out half a dozen bags, which Jake secreted in the storage space on the back of his barrow. Then he began to push it across the road. As he did so a car came roaring at speed out of Gillygate, swerved, and narrowly missed him. The driver shook his fist and sped off, leaving Jake shaken by the roadside. Daz yelled over to him.
"You alright mate?"
"Aye. No thanks to yon clever beggar though!"
"Ought to have more sense driving like that. He jumped the bloody lights too! You sure you're OK?"
"Just a bit shook up that's all! Occupational hazard in this job. Thats why we wear bright reflective overalls. Street sweepers are number one target for ruddy car drivers. You know about Sid Wilton don't you?"
"Well he was sweeping out a channel up Micklegate last summer, and a stupid pratt parked up on his foot. Fortunately he had safety shoes on."
Daz grinned."Bloody loonies, world's full of em! Anyway I'd better be getting on my way. Checker's going round today. He reports me for not replacing chains on the toilet cisterns. What he doesn't realise is that between me replacing them and him checking them they get nicked! Like I said, world's full of bloody queers - men dressed like women and women dressed like men."
Jake laughed. "Ah, but in York they call it historical costume!"
'Daz' Dunnett started up his van, and emitting a cloud of black diesel smoke roared off in the direction of Clifton.
Jake stood alone with his barrow on the dark deserted pavement. Across the road was the portico of the art gallery with the statue of victorian artist William Etty in the foreground. To his left he could make out the fence and the wrought iron gates that marked the entrance to Kings Manor. It was there that he suddenly noticed the patch of fog.Jake couldn't help but notice it, because it was decidedly odd. There was no fog anywhere else. Beyond the streetlight glow he could make out a crescent moon and a few stars. It was a clear sky, with dawn just beginning to peep over the eastern horizon. There was no fog anywhere else around. Just this strange, patch of odd, grey mist, which somehow appeared darker at it's centre than its rim.
Jake peered more closely at this dark patch. As he did so, the the fuzzy image clarified and he realised that he was actually looking at the silhouette of a tall figure with a wide brimmed hat. Then the figure turned, and as it did so was illuminated by a bright, sunny glow - an aura of daylight in a sea of winter darkness. He could see the man clearly now - it was a cavalier - a laughing cavalier, just like in the famous picture ! Sword, powder horn, pistol, thigh length spurred boots, leather jerkin with slashed sleeves and a wide lace collar, the long hair falling in ringlets around his shoulders. And the cavalier was laughing, silently guffawing at some unheard witticism uttered by an unseen companion. It was like watching a movie with the sound turned off! Strangely, despite the considerable distance, Jake could now make him out vividly - a sallow face, dark eyes, a flowing moustache and the arrogant bearing so often evident in portraiture from that far off time. Here, at six thirty in the morning, beneath the street lamps of modern York, Jake Bellerby was looking at one of the three musketeers!
Jake stood rapt, frozen to the spot. He had heard many stories of ghosts in York, where it was said that roman legionaries marched through cellar walls and grey ladies frequented the cities' numerous churches. Even ghost walks were organised for the tourists in the summer, but Jake had never thought of such things as being anything more than yet another load of bunkum designed to attract tourism. But now he was faced with a real supernatural manifestation, and amazingly felt more fascinated than frightened.
But then the figure turned fully towards him and its manner changed, the smile giving way to a look of sheer terror as if the apparition was now suddenly faced with an unseen horror, approaching it from Jakes direction. So shocked was the face, and so vivid the impression of something behind him, that Jake involuntarily spun round to see what it was, only to be confronted by the entrance to the 'gents'.
When Jake turned back the figure had vanished. There was no trace. Just an empty street and the distant whine of an oncoming mechanical roadsweeper. Everything was as before.
Jake crossed the road, pushing his barrow to the spot where the figure had been. Beyond the gate stretched the pathway to the Kings Manor with its fine jacobean doorway surmounted by the royal arms. On the pavement nearby a few leaves had blown into a damp, soggy pile, remnants of the autumn leaf fall. He pulled out his shovel and bagged them up, still lost in his thoughts. Jake worked like an automaton for the rest of the day, giving no thought to the endless tab ends, chip trays and detritus which is the lot of a street orderly. He just padded silently around his beat, oblivious to the swirling mass of humanity that swarmed around him as the day progressed. He had had a special, strange experience, and could not get the recollection of it out of his head.
When Jake clocked off at the yard at three thirty he didn't go straight home. Instead he parked up his bike outside the Minster and sought out a quiet spot he knew, not far from the North Transept. Jake was not a religious man, but he knew that if you were troubled and sought some kind of peace of mind, then this was the right place to come. Every citizen of York knew this. The minster is a place of many shades, textures and moods - all of them tranquil in one way or another. Despite the hubbub of tourists, children and visitors, a hushed atmosphere of hallowed grace permeates its honey coloured, soaring stones.
Jake sat in a corner, breathing in this wondrous atmosphere, lost in his own fancies. So he had seen a ghost. So what? If the tourist blurb was to be believed lots of people had seen ghosts in York. Indeed, this great edifice, the Minster, was reputed to be full of them! So why was it that he felt so uneasy, as if that early morning encounter had held a deeper and more terrible import and left him with a feeling of dread, of awful premonition. It didn't make sense. He had seen a ghost, a laughing cavalier, that was all there was to it! But what had the cavalier seen that had turned his jolly expression to one of numbed horror? Whatever it was, Jake knew that it lay at the root of his own feelings on the matter. Somehow, inexplicably, Jake had identified with what he had seen, and now he was left high and dry, having nothing but his flat, his bike and a clutch of dark, sombre feelings to dog him through his days.
But time is a great healer. For many weeks after that odd encounter Jake plodded around the streets of York, pondering, thinking. But as the daffodils appeared on the grassy slopes beneath the city walls and the days grew longer once more, it was soon forgotten and dismissed as an odd moment in Jakes' generally uneventful life. Jake had been led to find out more about the Kings Manor and discovered that it had been the scene of much coming and going during the siege of York in 1644, and it seemed likely that this was something to do with the apparition he had seen.
The first of August was a hot one that year. Jake had been on the streets for most of the morning, and now, as lunchtime approached he was flushed and drenched with sweat. People were picnicking on grass verges, and as he wearily pushed his barrow up high Petergate towards Bootham Bar, he too was thinking of the lunchbreak he would take in the station hall - a cool place where he could watch the trains and take a welcome respite from the ice pop wrappers and soft drinks cans which seemed endless at this time of year. Turning left out of Bootham Bar, Jake plodded onwards, oblivious to the busy traffic thundering through the lights out of Gillygate. He was too busy following a paper trail of handbills scattered all over the pavement. This was the usual kids trick- grab a fistful of them from the Tourist Information Centre and throw them around. Jake cursed - nearly dinnertime and all this ruddy mess. He was going to be late knocking off. He was just about to direct his litter pickers to the last of the handbills when something caught his glance and filled him with a strange feeling of deja vu. He turned and stared across the road towards the Kings Manor. There, beside the gate was the tall figure of the laughing cavalier. Suddenly, the noise , the urban hubbub, the throng of people around him vanished and he was oblivious to everything but that tall, flamboyant figure. Slowly, so slowly he turned and moved towards it, while equally sluggishly that bewhiskered face turned towards Jake, a look of horror breaking wave like over the mans gaunt features........
Jake never saw the equally shocked face of the driver of the coach that ploughed into him. A small crowd gathered around him, their backs to the grubby yellow sweepers barrow standing forlornly on the nearby pavement. The police appeared and directed the traffic, while a couple of ambulance men scooped Jakes' huddled, broken form onto a stretcher and whisked him off to hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The crowds dispersed, the barrow was taken away and soon only a patch of damp sand on the tarmac remained to indicate the scene of a tragedy passed by and ignored by the uncaring human race.
But Bill Okey had not forgotten. Sitting in a corner of the Black Swan with a pewter tankard of beer in his hand, he was, at the insistence of his friend, Ian Hodgson, having a drink and a sandwich to steady his nerves, which were still decidedly shaken.
"But if he'd only looked where he was going instead of looking at us...."
"It's no use blaming yourself Bill, you weren't to blame. These things happen. You know how bad the traffic is in York."
"Yes, but why did he look at us?"
"I don't know. All I know is that life goes on, and its no use worrying about things over which you have no control." Hodgson glanced at his watch."Anyway, you'd better sup up, it's nearly one o' clock - we're going to be late. And before we go I'll give the landlord one of these handbills."
Hodgson walked over to the bar. "Excuse me but would you mind putting one of these up for us?" The barman scrutinised the piece of paper.
He grinned. "Yes, that'll be OK. Wondered why you were done up like a dogs dinner!"
Across the lounge the Laughing Cavalier drained the tankard, wiped it off with a handkerchief and strapped it to his belt. He adjusted his lace collar, strapped on his sword, and donned the feathered wide brimmed hat. He waved across to Hodgson and together they strolled out into the hot summer afternoon. An American Tourist sitting at the bar, whispered to the landlord.
"Gee did you see those guys? Who were they?"
The landlord grinned. "Oh they belong to 'The Sealed Knot' they're fighting a mock civil war battle in the Museum Gardens. He passed him the handbill. Here take a look."
Back on the pavement outside the Bootham Bar toilets a solitary piece of paper tumbles gently in the summer breeze. Jake Bellerby had been about to pick it up when death came for him. Closer examination would reveal a handbill, printed in antique woodcut style advertising a mock battle. Under other circumstances it might have made a monkey out of fate - but Jake Bellerby could not read or write.